I finally left Venezuela today. Looking at my passport I see that I spent 30 days in the country. That is more than 2 weeks longer than I originally planned, but not that I did anything extra. Admittedly that was more than enough time to see the mountains and the savannah.
Mike (AU) and I planned to leave on the 05.30 bus but did not wake up in time so we didn't leave town until the much later 08.30 bus. At least we gained an hour crossing into Colombia. It was a little bit complicated trip. First thing was a bus to San Cristobal (5 hrs) where we changed to a small bus for the trip to San Antonio (1.5+ hrs). In San Antonio we walked to the DIEX immigration office (bought the stamp across the street) and sorted out our passports. Then it was a shared taxi ride to the bridge where on the Colombian side we changed bolivares for pesos and were restamped for entry at DAS (1 hr?). Then we took a taxi to the bus terminal and hopped a bus leaving right away for Bucaramanga (7 hrs). The whole trip took 2 hours longer than we were expecting due partially to police checkpoints and downed bridges (still not fixed after 2-3 months). We were dropped off in downtown Bucaramanga and took a taxi to Hotel Amparo. Lights out just before midnight.
So begins Colombia Act II.
Today we were all ready to assault Pico Bolivar. We bought food and the Canadians, Pascal and Victor, rented some gear for the overnight trip. The early morning rain cleared up and things were looking good. We just needed to pick up rope from Natoura next door. I had arranged to rent this last piece of equipment from them after walking all over town because nobody rents rope here. I didn't really want to rent from them because all their rentals are twice as much as everybody else and he required that we rent harnesses from him too. The owner assured me that I could pick it up in the morning. They open at 08.30. The truth is they don't open at all on the weekend. We figured that out after several hours.
Natoura Adventure Tours Merida Venezuela Sucks page coming soon.
We spent the night boozing and ended up at some clubs with some local girls later so it wasn't a total waste. On a side note I'm going to miss being able to have a night out for one US dollar.
Four of us representing the US, Canada, Denmark, and Czech Republic went to Alejandro's (the owner of Posada Patty's) house / cabin in the mountains for what was supposed to be a few hours of relaxing. What followed was a circus. I won't get into details but what unfolded over the next two days was a bizarre comedy that began with Alejandro getting his pickup truck stuck in the pouring rain while trying to drive off his property to bring us back into town. I've put one short movie online. It is very bad because the camera was put away when the battle started, and I was in a rush. So it is very shakey while I fumbled around and is missing the whole first half of the encounter but it shows a still drunk peasant losing a fight to a bull he intended to harness to the pickup truck the next morning to pull it onto better terrain. idiota Photo by Sigurd. We are laughing at Honsa who was painted by a stripe of mud from his face to right foot while helping push the pickup.
First I want to say, "yes", I know all about what happened today in my old home of Quito. I was watching it live. I even saw some familiar places in the video footage. I can't wait to hear from my friends living there!
To continue, this is a day of rest in town. Last night I returned and nobody was at Cumbre Azul to receive me so I went a few doors down to Posada Patty where I had been hanging out with various friends. The only room left was the Mini. It isn't much bigger than the bed but I like the hostel, the people, and the price of 5,000 bolivares per night. The exchange rate fluctuates but it is around USD $2.
I still want to climb Pico Bolivar. You have no idea how annoyed I am that I haven't reached the summit after two tries. Granted, their were extenuating circumstances. The first time I soloed to within 30 meters before turning around with route finding problems. Last time, weather and partner issues forced me to turn around ... but still, I want to stand on the highest summit in Venezuela. Unfortunately I don't think it is going to be during this trip. The rainy season is here to stay, and to be honest, it isn't a "good enough" peak for me to burn a lot of days waiting for the right conditions and still risking bad rain and snow and another aborted attempt. Maybe instead I will just hike to the small village of Los Nevados with a friend instead or visit some thermals tomorrow. There are plans for a barbeque sort of thing this Saturday at the owner's new house on the mountainside, and I really want to go and say goodbye to my friends there.
So my tentative plan is to leave for Colombia no later than Sunday. In Colombia I'll spend no more than a week before flying back to the States. Hard to believe.
Lonely Planet's guidebook describes Los Llanos as "an immense plain savannah south of the Andes". If the guidebook and the number of trips advertised are any indicator, it is one of the most popular trips from Mérida. Trips are 4 day, 3 night wildlife safaris in the sweltering heat. A host of animals can be seen including alligators, caiman, anacondas, boas, iguanas, red howler & capuchin monkeys, capybaras, anteaters, giant turtles, birds beyond number, fresh water dolphins, and piranhas. My trip was organized through Arassari Trek because I liked the idea of changing camps each night and tubing at the foot of the Andes on the last day.
It was an excellent trip and I got a short, bonus horseback ride that I was not expecting. Everything was well run with lots of food and alcohol included. Our guide, Caramelo, was very nice and knowledgable. And more importantly we got to see and hear (red howler monkeys 124K wav) all the animals that I had hoped for plus more. And tubing on the last day was fantastic. We went through some class 2 rapids even.
Can you believe it? One year ago today my good friend Bernie dropped me off at the Denver airport for a flight to Ecuador. Has it only been a year? It seems like so much longer. I didn't do anything special to commemorate the occasion. Every day is a celebration of life for me. :D In fact I wouldn't have even remembered if someone hadn't asked me how long I had been down here.
Today's plan for Sebastian and I was to take the cable car up Pico Espejo, traverse over to Pico Bolivar, summit, and return. Although the weather started great it quickly deteriorated during the traverse. Halfway up a slippery and loose gully the neophyte Sebastian lost his nerve (not long after hearing a big rockfall) and decided to turn around. Given the conditions, his maybe not so adequate clothing, and the time I decided to bail on the climb too and retreat back to the cable car station on Espejo. Although hard to make, in retrospect it was the right decision. We briefly lost the trail twice in the limited visibility and made it back with 30 minutes to spare before the last car was to go down.
The rainy season is well underway now so I don't know if I'm going to get another try at this one or not before I leave for Colombia. I might have to get it on my next visit.
Seems like Venezuela is the place to be to view today's solar eclipse. Some people headed further into the mountains to watch from small villages but I decided to (especially after last night's partying) stay in Mérida and watch with the locals. Plus it was a Friday and the weekends are pretty cool in this neighborhood with music, street food, and people hanging out. Every weekend is a little like a street party with people milling around swilling beer in the street.
Unfortunately the conditions were not that great for viewing. This was a total solar eclipse meaning the sun would be entirely blocked out. However that happened behind a cloud so nobody could see it. I was able to view it as a partial eclipse and did take one good photo at least. And for a few minutes it was noticably dark. Remarkably a lot of (most of, it seemed) the locals had no idea that an eclipse was happening they just kept chatting away in the semi darkness.
This was one of the most messed up trips I have ever done. First there was the tormenta or thunderstorm, on day 1. We took the cable car up and were trapped on the second station while the storm raged around us. For some reason it didn't occur to us to cancel the trip. At the top, over 4700 meters, the weather was still bad and we waited yet again. We almost had to spend the night in the station but at the last moment the weather cleared enough and we made the snowy traverse to Laguna Timoncitos below Pico Bolivar. Bilbao, my Basque partner, asked if I had a headache which I did not. Later I figured out he must be suffering. We enjoyed the evening views not realizing the would be our last for awhile. Day two we spent in our tents due to rain. All I managed to do was scout out the beginning of the Weiss route on Pico Bolivar and come back in the dark. The third day had variable weather and I decided to climb. Bilbao was suffering in his tent and wanted no part of that plan so I left. While I was ascending, he left with our shared stove. Meanwhile I was trying to find the route. I made it to below the summit tower but couldn't find anything that I wanted to climb unroped for the last 30 - 40 meters. I searched and searched but finally gave up and returned to camp to find myself alone and without a means to cook my food. I packed up and did have a nice hike into the next massive glacial valley to camp below La Corona massif. I had intended to climb Picos Humboldt and Bonpland but without really any food to eat I decided to skip that the next day. There was more rain and cold that night. The following day I hiked almost all the way out of the park but not without loosing 3 hours climbing up a big ridge after missing the path. So I camped one last night in the rain. On day 5 I hiked out to Mucuy and met some Germans I knew that were doing the same trip as me but in reverse. They enjoyed my tale of woe.
I found something that I hadn't done yet! While at the Arassari office after canyoneering I noticed they had a bridge jump scheduled for today. That isn't something that happens all the time so I again postponed my trip into the mountains. The event was at 15.30 off a bridge right here in town. It is know in Spanish as either puenting or pendulo.
The other two people got cold feet and cancelled at the last minute so it was just I and the operator. He made the first jump and I the second. This is not bungee jumping. In bungee you jump and go straight down and bounce up. This is a pendulum swing. The rope is attached to the opposite side of the bridge and you try to jump out as far as you can then turn over and swing back under the bridge. Back and forth, back and forth. It is very smooth and I want to do it again. Watch the video. Gee Flies
I thought about making an April Fools entry but who would be able to tell?
I had planned to go into Sierra Nevado for 4 to 5 days for backpacking and climbing but changed my mind when I started drinking with some guides from Arassari Trek that showed up. I got a ton of mountain beta out of them I and found out they had a canyoneering trip going out the next day. One of the guides, Julio Olivari, took 69 pictures and let me download them to the Mac.
This was canyoning more like in Baños, Ecuador than the US or Europe. We descended a ravine cut by a stream just outside of town. There were three difficulties overcome by abseils - wet ones since all three were waterfalls. There were also a number of different jumps and a couple slides necessary. There were the two guides plus 8 clients from Spain (Basques), England, Venezuela, and the US. Later I impressed the Basques with my encyclopediac knowledge of their language learned while on the Camino de Santiago with 3 of their countrymen.
The first drop was a trivial 8 meters but we were directly in the flow of the waterfall. It definately makes it more exciting to be totally engulfed in the water. We had been instructed in some non-standard rappelling techniques that are used during waterfall rappels and given a top belay which is to say we were attached to a second rope from above so we couldn't fall. They showed me some much appreciated deference, and when I stepped up Julio asked if I wanted the belay or not. Naturally I said no. It is so much more exciting when you can die. So the guides and I went without. From what I could see it was a good thing some of the others had the second rope and were lowered like rocks.
The second drop was 22 meters and also directly in the main flow. It was my hardest rappel ever. The rock had an overhang and a deep cleft. It was very featured and the water was powerful. I gave the same answer about being put on belay then slid off the edge. I was totally at the mercy of the water and it threw and spun me around. Very, very fun. It was a whole different world being pushed this way and that while using the air pocket created by my helmet and baseball cap (highly recommended combination) to breath.
The last drop was 30 or 35 meters and is pictured. This was the driest of the three although you still get sprayed by the water. It was also the only one where you could have your feet out against the wall in the standard rappelling form so you could jump around a bit. This was very canyon-like as we descended into a small gorge of sorts with a deep well at the bottom of the falls. Afterward we swam around in that pool and the next with some locals watching. Then it was a short hike out to the road to wait for the car with a deadly swarm of black flies feeding on our succulent exposed flesh.
I highly recommend this adventure the next time you are in Mérida, Venezuela or anywhere else it is offered.
Parque Nacional Sierra Culata is fabulous. I thought I was in Colorado's San Juans except a thousand feet higher. I forgot what it was like to be surrounded by strings of mountains. No snow here, but that was visible in the distance on Picos Humboldt and Bonpland in the form of a nice glacier separating the two. I'll be on that soon enough.
I think Pan de Azúcar roughly translates to "The Widowmaker". My plan was to solo this dangerous peak and force my body to produce more red blood cells. I've been on the coast, 0 meters/feet above sea level, for over two weeks and have not been over 5000 or even 4000 meters in, geez, over a month. My body needs to re-adapt to the low oxygen levels found in the high sierra. So this was my choice, a 2 day trip into the park with this summit as the goal. I reached it of course which is maybe a little bit surprising since I didn't have a map or directions only a vague idea of where to get dropped off.
I'm pretty happy about this ascent. With all my time on the coast I should have lost all my acclimatizationand only spent a couple days between 1000 and 2500 meters in cities and buses. Then I went into the park and hiked from 3000 meters to 4660 without any ill effects of altitude. Not even a slight headache. My body remembers.
I am thinking about acquiring a map somplace and returning. There appeared to be lot of nearby mountains to climb and some potential ridge traverses. That will have to wait a while though. My next plan is to take a rest day and summit the nearby El Toro. :) It should not be more than a couple hours the way I am planning it. That is pretty much a rest day as I see it.
So I'm in Venezuela. I cooked up a last minute plan and left the Platy the following day. Bogotá to Mérida was 32 hours of taxis, bus terminals, and bus rides. It was terrible and took much longer than it should have. And I forgot about the timezone change. It was 22.30 before I settled into the Floridita. While it was a nice place the next day I found more appropriate accomodations in Cumbre Azul, a great mountaineering equipment rental agency and hostel with comfortable rooms for rent and very friendly owners.
The majority of the girls here are really hot and the rest aren't far off. It is hard to believe, but I guess I should have expected it if the Lonely Planet guidebook actually mentions it! This is a fun neighborhood too, and I am enjoying my time here.
The picture is the country hero, Simón Bolivar, who threw off the yoke of Spanish oppresion for Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. I am staying in Mérida and that statue is in the town square with the not-very-old cathedral in the background. I understand that every town here has a Plaza Bolivar.